The Old Road of Discovery

I picked up a semi-truck in Louisville, Kentucky on a Tuesday night and had it back in the center of South Dakota before sunset the next day. I wasn’t thinking much about the Great Plains as I waited for the truck salesman to pick me up at the Louisville airport, as we rechecked the paper work, or as he gave me the five minute check-out ride before sending me down the road. The Great Plains never entered my mind until I crossed over into Indiana and my front wheels touched the bridge over the Ohio River. The Ohio River conjures up lots of images in lots of other people’s minds, but in my mind it’s mostly about a group of forty-three strong, free, young men paddling two canoes and pulling a heavily loaded keel boat. Every time I see the Ohio River I think of Lewis, Clark, and the Corps of Discovery.

Thoughts of that land-mark expedition receded into my sub-conscious for the next two-hundred and fifty miles. I was pretty busy with the new truck. It was a beauty: four hundred and fifty-one horsepower caterpillar engine, air brakes all around, twenty forward gears, an auto-shift transmission, and a great sound system. I tossed in an ancient Simon and Garfunkel disc, “And we’ve all gone to look for America.” By the time I got to Saint Louis I was rocking and bopping, wondering just where I was, experimenting with the shifter, and searching for ninth gear, when I looked up and saw the Gateway Arch. Instantly I knew exactly where I was. It was the doorstep to the land that contributed most to the character and idea of America. I was about to enter the Great Plains, and though I was mired in the city traffic of Interstate 64 and looking for the exit to Interstate 70, I felt the world shift as I crossed the Mississippi and entered the land drained by the Missouri. Despite the night-time traffic, pulling away from the Mississippi made me feel that I was truly on my way home – exactly the opposite of what Lewis and Clark must have felt when they pushed off from St. Louis in 1803 to discover what it was that President Jefferson had bought in the Missouri River basin. Suddenly, my trip took on a different tone. I was no longer retrieving a semi-truck from the east; I was on the old road of discovery.

Even though I had eaten dinner somewhere in Illinois, I pulled into a truck stop in St. Charles, Missouri. There is something about driving a big truck that makes a guy crave chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes. The lights of an enormous truck-stop are alluring. The sound of air-brakes and the smell of cigarettes and diesel fuel can be comforting after six or seven hours alone in a rocking semi cab. I was drawn to the Travel Plaza for all those reasons and because I had never been to St. Charles before. My total experience with St. Charles, Missouri was from books. Of course I knew better, but somehow I expected a village of 450 French Canadians rather than the bustling and congested extension of St. Louis that I found. I didn’t see anything of the beautiful, high, level, and fertile prairie that Meriwether Lewis claimed separated the two towns, or the poor, polite and harmonious town’s people that Clark described. I did find a giant cup of acceptable coffee and passable piece of peach pie.

It was after midnight by the time I got out of St. Charles and though I wasn’t tired I still slipped into a hazy road reverie. I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut, or live in the medieval castle, or on a Tahitian Island. Never wanted to be a cowboy or a Musketeer. But I’ve always thought I would have been some help pulling that keel boat up the Missouri. The stretch between St Charles and the mouth of the Kansas River might well have been the most trying time of the entire three year trip. Though those guys were used to living outdoors and off the land, there were some serious adjustments that need to be made. The current of the Missouri was fierce and the water was filled with floating logs and deadly hazards, but here was honest work in a wonderland for those of us who pay attention to birds and animals, plants and weather. Their twelve ton load included weapons, whiskey, and food, but mostly trade goods for the thirty Plains Indian tribes they expected to meet. The plan was to make friends of the Indians by offering them gifts, to inform them that France no longer “owned” their homeland and that they were now part of the United States of America. The Corps of Discovery had come to see America’s new frontier and to catalogue the land and creatures that made up the Louisiana Purchase. Officially, they had come to establish trade with the people of the Great Plains, but in reading the journals, it is impossible to miss the fact that the men of the Corps of Discovery was giddy to be in such a wondrous place.

Somewhere on the river, in the darkness to the south of Interstate 70, they met a few white men and half breeds bringing beaver pelts, robes, and buffalo tallow out of the great beyond. The first Native Americans they came across had already been devastated by the smallpox epidemics that had run decades ahead of white settlement, but the men of the Corps were still awed by their pride and dignity. Along the river, they found fish, deer, and wild fruit in abundant. They turned away from the salted pork and hardtack stored in the bottom of the keel boat. The boils and sores that were the result of poor colonial diets began to heal and the already strong men took on an aura of health and strength far beyond the norm of the civilization they had left behind. It was still dark when I came to Kansas City, but when I looked down from the Missouri bridge at the fetid and canalized river, I found it hard to believe that the Corps of Discovery had thrived by drinking the water of that river and that they had grown even more powerful by eating the fat cat fish they had caught there by the hundreds. It was four-thirty in the morning but still the city that had grown up from nothing in the last two hundred years seethed and pulsed around me. I drove hard to escape it, hoping I would find stillness on the north side of town.

But, I found many miles of neon lights before the city thinned to the occasional truck stop that lured me with promises of Guatemalan coffee and more chicken fried steak. I was able to resist the truck stops and drove as fast as I dared. When the roadsides went to black again I knew I was in the Tallgrass Prairie, at the edge of one of the largest grasslands in the world, and felt less alone. Now it was a straight shot to the Platte River and Council Bluffs where the first real meeting with Plains Indians had occurred. There was finally a hint of light in the east and I was in familiar country, running the great valley that had once been the flood plain of the great river. There were a few deer in the ditches and a Canadian goose pumped slowly through the humid air above a corn field. But I did not see any swans, or pelicans, or elk, or buffalo. In fact, I did not see any prairie until the Loess Hills appeared on my right. In the hazy distance, beyond the factory agriculture of Iowa, I knew there was a strip of rough country too steep to plow. Even from Interstate 29 I could see the defiance of those unique hills. Past them, where some of the richest prairie land in the world once produced a cornucopia of prairie plants, were only hundreds of miles of corporate farming. The paradise that the Corps of Discovery found in Iowa was now, except for isolated remnants, devoid of most of the flora and fauna that prompted one 19th century pioneer to exclaim that he had never see a country so full of game.

It was full morning by the time I passed the monument to the only member of the Corps to die on the trip to the Pacific Ocean and back. I entered Siouxland with Sergeant Floyd on my mind. Forgiving the poor spelling, who did I know who would be eulogized as Captain Clark eulogized Sergeant Floyd: “The man at all times gave proofs of his firmness and Deturmined resolution to doe Service to his Countrey and honor himself.”

Even though the Interstate highway was faster, I stuck as close to the river as I could. I drove between the site of the Yankton Sioux village the Corps visited and the place where they shot their first buffalo. By this time they were replacing their hemp ropes with those braided from elk hide. They had enough elk hide to make ropes and now the closest elk was three hundred miles away. This was the stretch of the trip that was most abundant with wildlife in 1803. I only saw a few imported Chinese pheasants and couple of deer peeking from the tight rows of corn destined to become ethanol.

I reached the Missouri River bridge just south of where the Corps meet their first Native resistance. A few miles north of where my path diverged from Lewis and Clark’s the Teton Sioux showed the belligerence they have always been famous for. It would be nice to think that their actions were clairvoyant and they were making a stand against the onslaught of mindless commerce that followed the Crops of Discovery. But the truth is that the Tetons acted like thugs and were trying to shake the expedition down for whiskey, weapons, and trade goods. They might as well have wiped out the Corps of Discovery had they not have been greatly out gunned. The trip from Louisville, Kentucky had taken me twenty hours. It had taken Lewis and Clark a little less than five months. I suppose that sometime in the future such a trip will be made in even less time. I could easily have hauled their cargo, the canoes, the keel boat, and all forty-three men. It did not escape me that the two trips had their similarities. The Corps of discovery was the unwitting advanced guard of the culture that had systematically destroyed most of what they discovered. That was certainly not the intent of Captains Lewis and Clark or of any of the men on the expedition. From their writing we know that the joy and a deep love for the land and species they found on the Great Plains. Several refused to go back to “civilization” when they had their chance. The men were innocent of the crimes that followed.

As I pulled up on the west side of the river, through the Missouri River brakes and onto the mixed grass beyond, I began to feel the weight of my own lost innocence and spent the last two hundred miles of my trip calculating just how I could escape the fate of the Corps of Discovery. Innocence can not be regained – the bell can not be un-rung but awareness and human ingenuity may well be as powerful as our animal instinct for more of everything. As the pillars and spires of the Badlands National Monument came into view to the south, it occurred to me that we could be on the brink of a new Expedition of Discovery and that reconciliation was still within our grasp.

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